By most accounts, the Obama Administration is tantalizingly close to announcing the resumption of direct negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians, after a hiatus of more than 18 months, although there is still some wrangling over details that the two parties regard as critical. More than at any other time in the history of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, the U.S. is seeking talks to define and achieve a final end to the conflict—"once and for all."
Grand Goal, High Stakes
President Obama and his team believe this goal is achievable. Moreover, they believe that achieving this goal will serve vital U.S. interests in the region, including rolling back Iranian influence that derives much of its appeal from the actual and over-promised assistance Iran extends to the conflict's Muslim victims. This is the reason that the ups-and-downs of these talks may be much more important to the geopolitical future of the world's key oil producing region than previous efforts to push forward a peace process aimed more at building confidence between Israelis and Palestinians. The goal is grander; the stakes are higher. Both mainstream Israeli and Palestinians are much more pessimistic about the prospects for success, much less for a "once and for all" end to the conflict. The talks are expected to be held in or near Washington, although other venues, including in Egypt, have not been ruled out. Netanyahu reportedly has named key members of the Israeli negotiating team. U.S. Special Envoy George Mitchell is to play a key role at the talks. President Obama reportedly believes that talks can reach a successful conclusion much earlier than a proposed 24-month deadline.
Snags and Timing
The snags which have held up an announcement of the talks include whether some key Palestinian demands can be met, particularly a reiteration of a March 19 statement from the Mideast Quartet (the U.S., the EU, Russia, and the UN) to serve as the terms of reference for the negotiations or, alternately, a possible U.S.issued invitation to the talks which might sidestep some of the Israeli Government's objections to the Quartet statement. The March 19 Quartet statement first set out the 24 month deadline for a successful conclusion of the negotiations. An Israeli diplomat told The Jerusalem Post that the Quartet has not been able to come to an agreement, so its statement may not come out until later this week or early next week. "The EU has agreed to the Palestinian stipulations of the talks leading to the creation of a Palestinian state based on pre-1967 borders with Jerusalem as its capital within one year, but the Americans have not accepted these preconditions. Since they couldn't come to terms, it will probably take a few more days," the Post quoted the Israeli diplomat.
Implications of Timeframe
Any "deadline" raises the question of what move the U.S. or the Quartet might contemplate if the talks fail to lead to an agreed declaration of Palestinian statehood within the specified time period. The Quartet includes all permanent members of the Security Council except China. Membership in the UN is affected by decisions in the General Assembly on the recommendation of the Security Council. A two-year timeframe would end just after the customary kickoff of the 2012 U.S. presidential campaign. Netanyahu says he thinks the talks will not start until after Ramadan. Id alFitr is September 9. Rosh Hashanah starts at sundown on September 8. Israel's moratorium on settlement activity is set to end on September 26. Mitchell reportedly has been assuring the Palestinians that Netanyahu would have no excuse to resume settlement activity once the talks are underway. Yesterday, Israeli Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz became the twelfth member of Netanyahu's cabinet to promise settlers that the moratorium would be lifted on September 26. Steinitz, 52, is from the Prime Minister's Likud faction but he also has a "complicated" relationship with Netanyahu, 60.
Rejectionist Palestinian groups have, of course, rejected the talks. Eleven Syria-based Palestinian groups, led by Hamas, issued a statement on August 16. "The Palestinian resistance movements affirm their rejection of direct, or indirect, negotiations and warn against the dangerous consequences of policies aiming at selling cheaply Palestinian national rights," the statement said. "A return to direct negotiations represents submission to American and Zionist conditions aimed at liquidating these rights."
Assessing Netanyahu's Intentions
But the more important debate within the Palestinian Authority leadership has been over whether Netanyahu is genuinely interested in a comprehensive peace or just wants to overcome the increased isolation Israel has been facing. "The question here is, does the Israeli government really want to resolve this, or does it want to manage the crisis and to ease some of the isolation that they are beginning to suffer from?" former Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qurei asked in an interview earlier this month. "If you want to legitimize the occupation, this is not our game," Qurei insisted. "If you want to end the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, we are the most ready to negotiate.Today, Netanyahu is seeking to negotiate for the sake of negotiating in order to end the [Israeli] isolation, rather than in order to reach an agreement." Qurei was a key Palestinian negotiator behind the Oslo accords and, later, with Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni during Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's term, when many of the core issues came close to resolution. "We negotiated with Rabin and signed the Oslo Peace Accords and they killed him," Qurei recalled. "We negotiated with Netanyahu and signed the Wye River memorandum and this was not implemented. We negotiated with Barak over the ongoing issue, but he escaped, and we did not reach any agreement. We did not negotiate with Sharon, but we negotiated with Olmert but again were unable to reach an agreement, and now we are in a new stage. This should serve as a lesson—both for us and for Israel—and for the U.S. mediator, who must bear all of this experience in mind. We are not holding up the negotiations. I do not want the U.S., the Arabs, or the international community to have the impression that a strong party is giving in to a weaker party, for if the occupation is going to continue, then so too must the resistance."
"Hamas Will Take Over"
Elements on the Israeli right are equally gloomy. "Abbas doesn't actually represent anyone anymore," wrote the provocative Caroline Glick in the Jerusalem Post on August 3. "Abbas has no legal authority to represent the Palestinians. His term of office ended in January 2009. The only reason he continues to be referred to as the president of the Palestinian Authority is because the U.S. insisted that he pretend that he still represents someone. Hamas, not Abbas' Fatah, holds the cards in Palestinian society. Hamas won the Palestinian elections in 2006. If elections were held today, Hamas would likely win again. If the IDF were to withdraw, Hamas would take over in those areas just as it took over Gaza three years ago. And if Abbas signed a peace accord with Israel tomorrow, he would have no capacity to implement it. He would be dead before he had a chance to declare statehood. And he knows it."
Parking Meters and the Gilo Wall
This quite gloomy assessment does overlook what has been going on in the West Bank, particularly since 2006. It's not only the emblematic parking meters in Ramallah—and in Nablus and other Palestinian urban centers where once the Palestinian police could scarcely venture into the streets—but also the overall results of a concerted effort at nationbuilding by the pragmatic Palestinian Prime Minister, Salim al-Fayyad, with much assistance from the Quartet. Just this week, Israel began to dismantle a nine-year-old, controversial wall which had protected Gilo, a Jewish neighborhood in annexed Jerusalem, from Palestinian sniper fire. A spokesman for the Israel Defense Forces said the barrier's removal reflected the stable security situation at this particular site in recent years.
Netanyahu has appointed Isaac Molho as his special envoy for the upcoming peace talks. Molho had also served Netanyahu in a similar capacity from 1996-1999, including at the Wye River talks. He negotiated the 1997 Hebron agreement, which led to Israel's military pullout from most of that city. It is also the only agreement Israel has signed with the Palestinians since Oslo. A respected attorney, Molho is considered one of Netanyahu's closest associates. His law firm, E. S. Shimron, I. Molho, Persky & Co., has provided legal services to Netanyahu and his family for many years. His law partner, David Shimron, is Netanyahu's cousin, and Molho is married to Shimron's sister, Shlomit. Molho, who will serve Netanyahu on a pro bono basis, insists that he has a genuine desire to reach a peace agreement with the Palestinians. During Netanyahu's first term in office, Molho met with Yasser Arafat more than fifty times and also knows Abbas well. He is also trusted by key White House officials who have much less faith in others in Netanyahu's circle.